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Previously unknown COVID variant detected in Israel, Health Ministry says

Variant, which combines Omicron’s dominant subvariant BA.1 with newer BA.2, diagnosed at Ben Gurion Airport in 2 returning passengers, but is believed to have originated in Israel

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image: A technician collects a nasal swab sample for COVID-19 at the coronavirus lab, at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on March 02, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Illustrative image: A technician collects a nasal swab sample for COVID-19 at the coronavirus lab, at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on March 02, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry announced Wednesday morning that two cases of a new, previously unknown COVID variant were diagnosed in Israel in recent days.

The novel variant — a combination of Omicron’s dominant subvariant BA.1 and another subvariant, BA.2 — caused light symptoms including low fever, muscle aches and headaches, and did not require special treatment.

“This variant is still unknown around the world,” the Health Ministry said, adding that the cases were diagnosed in PCR tests taken from arriving Israeli passengers at Ben Gurion Airport.

The ministry said it will continue to closely monitor the situation.

BA.2 has been documented to have re-infected some people after an initial case of Omicron. There’s mixed research on whether it causes more severe disease, but vaccines appear just as effective against it.

While the number of people getting tested in Israel has fallen, all international arrivals at the airport are checked upon landing.

A medical technician tests a traveler for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion Airport, June 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Speaking to 103FM radio Wednesday morning, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said the new variant could have originated in Israel.

“It’s likely that they were infected before boarding the flight in Israel. The variant could have emerged here,” he said. “We don’t know what it means yet.”

In an interview with Army Radio, COVID czar Salman Zarka seemed to confirm that the new variant was local.

“A young woman infected a baby and both of her parents,” he said, not specifying where or when the infections occurred.

“The phenomenon of combined variants is well known,” he noted. “At this point, we’re not concerned about [the new variant leading to] serious cases.”

Zarka’s reassuring remarks come as Israel has registered an uptick in the transmission rate of the virus in recent weeks.

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka attends a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The R number — the reproduction rate of the novel coronavirus — hit 0.9 on Wednesday, based on data from 10 days earlier, rising steadily from 0.66 over two weeks. The figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number over one signifies that the pandemic is growing.

New daily COVID cases have dropped fairly steadily over the past month, from more than 30,000 in mid-February to just over 6,300 on Tuesday.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 37,557 active COVID cases in the country, with 6,310 new cases confirmed on Tuesday. Among the active cases, 789 are hospitalized, with 335 in serious condition and 151 on ventilators. The death toll since the beginning of the pandemic stands at 10,401.

While Israeli health experts have indicated that the new variant is not expected to cause a fresh wave of infections in the country, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday he would meet with health officials including Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz to address the rising COVID-19 infections “in several places around the world.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a press conference at the Health Ministry, November 26, 2021. Seated (from left): Corona czar Salman Zarka; Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis; Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, and Health Ministry Director General Nahman Ash (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Bennett’s cautious approach may be a result of upcoming Jewish holidays that feature large gatherings and have led to mass infections in the past.

This week brings the holiday of Purim, often celebrated with large parties and celebrations. A month later is Passover, which is generally observed with extended family gatherings. Two years ago, Passover was celebrated under a strict lockdown, with families ordered to not host any relatives from outside their household.

On Monday night, a report by national broadcaster Kan indicated that a case of yet another new variant may have been diagnosed in Israel.

The network reported that the variant — a hybrid of Delta and Omicron referred to as Deltacron — surfaced in swab samples that were sequenced in labs. The Hebrew-language report has not been confirmed by the Health Ministry.

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report. 

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